My San Blas Birthday Adventure…

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Where to begin…..I had a GREAT Birthday, thank you very much! 🙂 The man who prepared all the food at the resort where we stayed made me a special lobster dinner. Of course the lobster was fresh caught that day! And a delicious cake for desert and all the other guests sang to me!! In Spanish of course!! Wow! What a great Birthday! It really pays off to tell everyone you meet ..”Hoy es mi cumpleaños!¨:) Hee!Hee! I feel so fortunate to live so near to such natural beauty and to have the freedom to explore and learn first hand, about such a colorful culture. The Kuna are just a fascinating group of people. The first thing I saw through the little window of the small airplane as we landed was two Kuna women and I inwardly gasped at their exotic beauty. The traditional clothing that they wear immediately caught my eye and I was mesmerized by the bright colors and beautiful embroidered designs. But what really stood out to me was the amazing adornment on their legs and arms. They wear these beautiful beaded things (‘Things’? ‘Adornments’?for lack of a proper word) that at first looked like leg warmers , covering their legs from ankle to knee. And on their arms from wrist to elbow. When I saw them closer I realized they were actually beads of brightly colored oranges, yellows, reds, black and green. Hand beaded in beautiful geometric designs. We noticed that the young females didn’t wear the traditional garb and our guide told us that they begin to dress in the clothing when they turn 18. They also have their hair cut short at that age and never again wear their hair long. This makes perfect sense to me given the constant wind and lack of lot’s of fresh water and also, I’m sure there’s not a hair salon to keep all that long hair trimmed up! (although this may not be their motivation, shrug!) All these Kuna women are tiny, almost childlike in stature. The traditional costume that they wear is hard to describe and I’m certain to do a terrible job in my verbal description of the beauty and charm of these women, but I’ll do my best. On a side note, before I continue my attempt to describe the female members of the Kuna I must tell you that none of the men wear any such traditional garments. They dress just like any Panamanian you would see almost anywhere. I found that kinda funny. Anyway….The first adjective that comes to mind when describing the Kuna women’s attire is ‘colorful’! They love color and design and they display it well! They wear an amazing mixture of different fabrics, textures and colors as well as patterns. The tops seem to all be made from some type of lightweight, maybe Rayon or chiffon fabric, flowing and lightweight. In beautiful floral patterns and soft geometric designs that are both feminine and bold. They have puffy sleeves that go to just above the elbow and most had scoop necks that set off the brass colored necklaces they wear along with long brass colored earrings. At the bodice this first fabric is connected to a corset-type piece that is embroidered with the traditional Mola designs, each women wears different designs and I don’t know what the significance of these designs are to the individual women, if there is a significance at all. But they are very brightly colored, hand embroidered , and intricately decorated all the way down to where the next piece of fabric begins, this next layer of color and pattern is the Sarong type skirt they all wear. And on their heads they all have a red handkerchief type scarf to tie around their short hair. They all wear the brass jewelry and some of the older women had pierced noses. I did manage to very discreetly get a photo of a women who was standing in front of me at the airport on the morning we left. ( I know “bad girl!”) They don’t like to have their photos taken so I felt kinda bad, but she didn’t see me , I promise! I just had to show those of you who have not had the pleasure of seeing them before. In addition to all this color and amazing external adornment I must add that above all I found their easy smiles to be most endearing of all. Every women I saw gave me a great big smile and a wave, I just love that! I didn’t see one unfriendly face the whole time I was there!

Our guide who walked us around the village told me not to take pictures of the people, so I of course honored that. He did give me permission to photograph his family when he introduced us to his wife and children, so Im glad to have at least a few photographs to share. He invited me to sit and watch his wife as she embroidered a mola and I very happily sat and watched for awhile while his young girls all laughed at me and joked around, speaking their native language and mimicking me when I would laugh, it was funny how playful they were. Or who knows, maybe they were just bored and they thought this silly white lady had a crazy laugh! (Which my own daughter would agree with! Humph!) Ha! We were shown a traditional kitchen that our guides family uses . Scott was very interested in this part of the tour, and we both thought his mother would be very unhappy with the lack of sanitation that they live with (just kidding Pat). He showed us all the natural medicinal plants they use for sore throats and other ailments, I wish I understood what he was saying. He spoke some Spanish , no English at all and our limited Spanish made it hard to catch everything he told us, darn! I found it so fascinating and wonderful that the Kuna have been able to maintain their culture, especially their language. Many of the people don’t speak even Spanish. They live a very very modest, rustic life on the islands. One luxury they do have is modern solar panels all over the place so at night they have some electricity. Our guide told us that there is a big pipe that comes from the mainland to provide fresh water so they really have no issues with water supply. And I saw two telephone booths, kinda funny to see amongst the thatch roofed huts. It was also adorable to see many children running around flying kites that they had made from plastic bags and paper. The kites were fashioned with long colorful paper tails and they looked to be having a grand time running around laughing. Also lot’s of little boys doing backflips into the water competing to see who did it best and coaching each other on the best way to get it right! We walked past a volleyball court where a large group of young men were engrossed in a game of Volleyball and I gotta tell ya, they were really good! I was delighted by all the friendly smiles and Hola’s we received while walking around,even one little one with a great big smile yelled, “Hello!” to us as we walked by. I got to purchase some beautiful Molas and I cant wait to frame them to hang in our new home someday.

We were told by our Kuna guide that there are 378 islands that make up San Blas. The Kuna people have been granted Sovereignty over their ancestral islands and have their own government, schools, and I think they even have a small hospital as well. I’ve been told that this is very similar to our Native American Indian reservations in the states. So even though San Blas is part of Panama my understanding is that they are independent from Panama. Our guide explained to us as he showed us a big central gathering house, that this is where the people in the village gather to discus important issues going on in their community. The men gather once a week on Tuesday and the women gather for their own meeting every Saturday. He told us that on his island there are about 2000 people who live there. I’m not sure how many of the islands are inhabited but we saw at least four that look to have large villages on them. The Island where we stayed is called Achutupo and the resort is The Dolphin Lodge. We felt very welcomed by the Kuna family who own this lodge and enjoyed their hospitality. Two of our four days at the resort we were taken by boat to two different tiny little nearby islands to spend a few hours swimming and just relaxing on the beach.

These islands are so peaceful and not at all crowded by tourists. And here’s where I must tell you about what I didn’t love about my adventure to San Blas…I have a theory about why they have a lack of large groups of tourists visiting the islands…it may be because not only are these resorts pretty expensive, without our half off discount with our coupon the price would have been close to $300.00 per night (this does include 3 meals a day but not alcohol or taxes)! Whew! Add to this steep price and the fact that it was ‘rustic’! (Here’s when I start the major eye rolling!)… May I add, I thought it was a bit more ‘rustic’ than I really like. I don’t want to sound snooty-patooty but….waking up at night to cockroaches crawling on me is where I draw the line! Yikes!!! I hate that!!!! We decided we were much more comfortable sleeping on the porch in the hammocks! Ahhhhhh! And the thatched roofs sounded like they were full of buggies… even though Scott tried to convince me it was just the “wind”, I wasn’t buying it!! Scratch scratch scratch, chomp, chomp chomp !!!! Hmmmmm??? Winds? REALLY?? Serious Eye Roll Here!!! And one night I grabbed the toilet paper that was sitting on the counter next to me and a HUGE (did I mention HUGE!) black bug-beetle-monster jumped out and ran across my hand TOWARDS MY BED No Less !!!! UGGGGG!!! YA! Much more rustic than I can comfortably handle! Sorry! I don’t mind the no windows or screens, just holes in the side of the cabana that’s not a problem at all… and the no locking doors to the cabana, only a piece of wood on the inside acting as a make-shift lock, there was no locking it when you leave this didn’t bother me much, it felt pretty safe there, that wasn’t a problem for me , cold shower… no problem, limited electricity… doesn’t bother me one tiny bit…bugs on me in my bed on the other hand is a deal breaker! In spite of the yuckiness of the critters, I’m glad we went. The amazing beauty we got to experience was well worth all the yucky buggy stuff but I’m honestly not in any hurry to go back. There’s so many other places to explore and I’m looking forward to many more adventures in and around Panama . I’m pretty sure I’ll find lot’s of critters in many other places we explore, even though I’m not happy about it, I would never let it ruin my experience or stop me from exploring a new and wonderful place like San Blas! Although, I must say….If I have to rough it, I much prefer to be in my tent with a nice snug zipper zipped up tight so no creepy crawlies can have their way with me while I sleep. Uggg!! I mean, a girls gotta have her limits when it comes to ‘rustic’ right?

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9 responses »

  1. LOVED this post Holly. The first time we ever went to Panama was on a cruise ship that anchored at San Blas Islands. We fell in love with these gently people and watched in amazement as the folks on the cruise ship threw coins over the side so the local young men would dive for them. We can’t wait to return — your post really hit a good spot in our hearts.

  2. Wow, Holly, what a great adventure for your birthday. I can TOTALLY understand your dislike of the creepy, crawly creatures!!! I’m pretty sure that I could not care to spend $300/night and have bugs in my bed or crawling across my hands!!! UGH~~~ Happy Birthday, again. I delighted you had a good time in spite of the creatures!!

  3. Haha…yep, a girl’s gotta have her limits of rustic! Your detailed description of the Kuna women’s dress was lovely. I love those bright colors and patterns. One thing I’ve always wondered about is where they get their material to make their molas and dresses? Do they have fabric shops on San Blas in the larger towns or do they have to bring it in from the mainland? And, how do they get supplies and all those beads to the islands? It has to be a cargo plane, right? Sounds like you had a fantastic birthday. Thank goodness for those coupons. It is really expensive. We’re headed to the Corn Islands the end of this month. I’m ready for another island vacation. lol

    • Hey Deb! Thanks ! Yes!! Your soooo right about wondering where they get those amazing fabrics and beads! It could be from Columbia because when we were there a good sized ship had just arrived and our guide told us that it comes every month and the Kuna sell them cocoanuts and trade for supplies, maybe fabrics are part of those supplies? Where are the Corn Islands? I hope you share on your blog! And I hope its a fabulous trip!! Cheers!

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